Creating and curating cabinets and vitrines

So, for those of you who have read my post on placing the artwork, you know that there are some major advantages to placing the artwork under glass (even if it is itself made of glass!).

I know that I don’t just want to make an artwork and pop it into a standard cabinet – often glass art does not fare well when placed inside a glass case. So my plan is to create an artwork where the cabinet or vitrine is an integral part of the piece.

When thinking about how to use cabinets or vitrines in this artwork, I am very much drawn to thinking about natural history exhibits. A lot of natural history museums in particular evolved complex settings for displaying their flora and fauna specimens in their vitrines during the late nineteenth century and enduring well into the twentieth century. This approach also spilled over into more general taxidermy.

Taxidermy display of Australian birds

Various artists are also known for using vitrines in their work. Here are examples from Carsten Holler, Anselm Kiefer, and an artist new to me Fiona Hall. They have used vitrines in different ways, creating types of taxonomy, mises en scenes and

Carsten Holler’s meditation on chanterelles and the colour orange.
Anselm Kiefer
Anselm Kiefer
Fiona Hall
Fiona Hall

Reviewing how curators, collectors and artists use of vitrines, some of the key things I know I want to think about going forward include:

  • Backdrop – coloured and or sandblasted
  • Drawing or writing on the case
  • Mise en scene inside the case – including narrative elements
  • Composition of main elements as specimens (or not)
  • Integrated lighting

I already have my eye on a specific vitrine / display case so am going to be thinking about those things in light of that….

Context, cleaning and cabinets – the practicalities of placing the artwork

While visiting St James Hospital, I spent some time in the Bexley Wing looking around where my artwork might be placed, both temporarily and on a more permanent basis.

The idea, if all goes according to plan, would be for the artwork to spend its first three months once completed in the Atrium Gallery of the Bexley Wing. This is an amazing, huge, high-ceilinged and light-filled space which already has a considerable number of artworks on display at any one time.

About the Atrium Gallery

Following that it will move to the Clinical Research Facility (CRF) which had just opened for business when I was on my visit to the hospital, although without inpatients. Chris and Debbie showed me around the space and pointed out a couple of options for where my artwork might be placed, depending on which I preferred and what kind of artwork i would be making. We also looked at what else would be in the space, including the lightboxes (the edge of one of which you can see below) and some watercolours which had been commissioned for and donated to the CRF.

A long flat wall if I am making wall based work
If i want to make something plinth, table or floor based, this area of around 1m x 1m would be an option, also with handy power source

While we were looking at the space, Chris also shared that the CRF might be converted into a coronavirus treatment unit if required by the hospital for providing care during the pandemic.

This heightened our existing awareness that the artwork would need to be easy to clean, or possibly sterilise, as well as allowing the walls / floors near it to be cleaned effectively. For that reason Chris and Debbie were both very much in favour of having the artwork housed in some sort of a cabinet that would allow for external cleaning without disturbing the piece itself, and would enable the artwork to be moved to allow the areas around it to be cleaned.

I hadn’t really considered the artwork being encased in any way up until that conversation. We had talked about the requirement for the artwork to be safe for patients and staff, and I had been thinking about how to finish rough or sharp edges so that they would not present any difficulties, as well as how the piece could be kept clean. But most of my creative ideas had to that point been for an installation where the component parts were not contained, and so this represented quite a change in creative direction for me to contend with.

I mulled for a short time about whether I could happily create a work which would conform to the necessary cleaning requirements without being held in any form of container or cabinet, but quite quickly decided that this would be both limiting and complex, determining what kind of finishes and materials that I could use – probably mainly shiny and smooth surfaces, which does not fit well with my usual aesthetic or approach.

However, constraints can be very positive, and my first thought was to find a way to make the ‘cabinet’ part of the piece itself, which would be an interesting and challenging way forward. My mind immediately went to my ‘Blood Morphology’ pieces which have integral bell jars containing the blood cells.

My Blood Morphology Series with their integral glass domes

Bell jars or glass domes would definitely be a possibility for this artwork, but currently i am much more drawn to the idea of specimen cabinets or vitrines, especially as I don’t want to find myself repeating myself. I will be doing some research about the aesthetics of specimen cabinets and vitrines as well as looking into other artists who have used these, and will post about that separately…